Rifle Shooting Fundamentals - NSSF Let's Go Shooting

Rifle Shooting Fundamentals

Rifles come in all shapes and sizes, from the diminutive to the gargantuan, and they serve a nearly endless variety of purposes. This article highlights the popular rifle shooting sports as well as the different ammunition and action types. These days rifles tend to be grouped into two categories, rimfire and centerfire, so let’s take a look at just some of the many wonderful things you can do with these fantastic tools and the types of rifles you’ll encounter.

Rifle Shooting Sports

Rifle shooting sports are a category of competitive shooting events that involve using rifles as the primary means of hitting a target. These sports typically involve shooting at stationary targets from a fixed distance, with the goal of achieving the highest level of accuracy. Some popular rifle shooting sports include long-range shooting, benchrest shooting, and silhouette shooting.

Bench Rest

Bench rest shooting is a form of precision marksmanship. Bench rest matches are fired from a sturdy shooting bench with the rifle supported by a front and rear rest. A course of fire consists of either five or 10 rounds, shot at a single target to produce a measurable group. The size of the group is what counts; there are no scoring rings on the target. The goal is to put five consecutive shots into a single hole no larger than the diameter of the bullet itself.

Once the shooter settles into position and the “commence fire” command is given, the shooter is allowed up to seven minutes to fire a five-round group, or 12 minutes for a 10-round string. Groups are measured in thousandths of an inch at their largest outside diameter. From this measurement, the actual caliber of the bullet used (in thousandths of an inch) is subtracted from the measurement to produce the actual group size.

Find out more about rifle bench rest shooting from:

International Benchrest Shooters


Silhouette shooting involves firing at metallic targets of different shapes from various distances up to 500 meters. Unlike most conventional target games that utilize paper targets and numerical scoring rings, almost every shot fired at a metallic silhouette produces an immediate and clearly visible result. Even misses produce a cloud of dust. For each five-round stage (one shot, left to right, at each target in a bank of five) a shooter is allowed a maximum of 2 1/2 minutes. More on metallic silhouette shooting here.

Find out more about competing in rifle silhouette shooting from:

International Metallic Silhouette Shooting Union


Position shooting requires competitors to shoot from various positions during different match stages. A typical match will consist of several stages fired at different distances from each position. The target is a round bull’s eye with numerical scoring rings radiating outward from center 10-ring or X-ring. Time limits vary with the stage and yardage. For example, high-power shooters firing at 600 yards are allotted 20 minutes for 20 shots, and the rapid-fire stage, fired at 200 yards, allows 60 seconds for 10 shots.

Two governing bodies regulate this sport. International Shooting Sports Federation (ISSF), the governing body for international and Olympic competition, specifies three positions: standing (off hand), kneeling, and prone (lying down). The National Rifle Association (NRA), governing body for U.S. match shooting, uses the same positions, plus a sitting position.

Find out more about Position shooting from:

International Shooting Sports Federation

3-Gun Shooting

The reason for the name is somewhat obvious; competitors use three different firearms — a modern sporting rifle (MSR), that is, a rifle built on an AR-platform; a pistol; and a shotgun.

3-gun simulates combat or self-defense situations. A stage provides a certain scenario for using one or more of the guns in a specific sequence. Each stage is each match will usually be different than any you’ve shot before.

Learn more about 3-Gun here.

Rifle Ammunition Options

Ammunition for the modern rifles and pistols we use fall into one of two categories, rimfire or centerfire, and it’s important to understand the differences between them. Get a more in-depth description here.

What is Rimfire Ammunition?

The world of rimfire rifles is one where many people get their introduction to the shooting sports—especially youth shooters. The .22 Long Rifle (LR) reigns here. General-purpose .22 LR rifles can be had without breaking the bank, and you can shoot this caliber often for as little as a nickel around. There are other cartridges in the close-knit rimfire family—.22 Short and Long, .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire, and Hornady’s .17 Magnum Rimfire and Mach 2 rounds to name a few—but no matter which you choose, each comes loaded with a healthy dose of fun.

What can you do with a rimfire round? This is where the art of plinking is king—paper poking at your favorite indoor range, tin cans on a fence post and balloon popping on an outdoor range are just a few casual pursuits. Ruger’s Rimfire Challenge is where many get their first introduction to competition shooting, and rimfire shooting leagues and matches across the country are administered by the Civilian Marksmanship Program, National Rifle Association, the American Rimfire Association and National Rifle League among others—and if you really want to shoot for the stars, the Olympic has a gold medal podium waiting for you.

What is Centerfire Ammunition?

With a dizzying number of calibers to choose from—there are literally hundreds of mainstream centerfire rifle rounds in all sizes and performance ranges—and the guns themselves available in configurations ranging from walking-around-money bargain to handcrafted budget-busting double rifles designed to take on the world’s most dangerous game, the only question you need to ask is what do you want to do with your rifle?

Need to drill a target at 100 yards? No problem. Need to drill a target at 1,000 yards? Also not a problem. For those adrenaline junkies out there, sports like 3-Gun, steel plate contests and matches in other action-shooting genres such as IPSC and Cowboy Action put the thrill in thrilling. Of course, rifles are part and parcel of hunting from big-game to small, and rifles are favored protection tools for many backcountry hikers and campers, just as they are for home and ranch defense in more rural locations.

Rifle Action Types

In this video, Outdoor Life’s Andrew McKean explains the five different kinds of modern firearm actions and how to use them effectively at the range.

What is a Single-Shot Rifle?

Single-shots are exactly as the name implies: They hold one shot and only one shot at a time. They run the gamut from plain Jane $100 basic to highly sophisticated competition guns running in the thousands. Rimfire single-shots tend to be lightweight and inexpensive and are a great choice for getting youth shooters started on safe handling skills. They can also be useful for home protection or for ranch and farm work such as eliminating pests. The guns usually have a lever at the top of the receiver that breaks open the gun on a hinge to allow loading of its single shell. A good example is the Ruger No. 1 single-shot rifle.

What is a Pump Rifle?

Under the barrel is a tube, called the “magazine,” that holds multiple rounds, the number depending on the caliber size. Surrounding that magazine tube is a moveable fore-end. To operate this action, the shooter will first move that fore-end backward along its rails. That motion opens the receiver (ejecting any spent shell case if the gun has just been fired), while moving a new shell out of the magazine and onto the “elevator” in the receiver bottom. When the shooter slides the fore-end forward, the shell is pushed into the chamber, the bolt closing behind it until it’s fully closed. Ta-da! You’re ready to fire again!

Though some makers like Remington offer these in centerfire rounds, you’ll more often find them chambered for rimfires. They make super-fun plinking guns and are useful for small game, pest control and even home defense.

Understanding Semi-Automatic Rifles

Semi-automatics essentially work like pumps, except the rifle does all the work. They cycle their actions via the gasses or energy expended by a fired shell. They are very fast to shoot, which make them very popular for the action-shooting sport of 3-Gun as well as the timed precision bull’s-eye courses of fire in NRA High Power. Both sports are where you’ll see many AR-15-type modern sporting rifles (MSRs) being used. Learn more about the functionality customizable nature of MSRs.

What is a Bolt-Action Rifle?

Like a pump, the shooter can fire one shot, then cycle the action before firing the next. Bolts are magazine-fed, too, but via a box-like magazine in the receiver, instead of a tube under the barrel. To cycle the action after firing, the shooter lifts the bolt up and pulls it to the rear. This will eject the empty case of the round just fired. Pushing the bolt forward lifts the round at the top of the magazine up and into the chamber, and returning the bolt to its forward-most, downward-most position closes the receiver and readies the gun for firing. Most popular with hunters for everything from the smallest to the biggest and most dangerous, bolt-actions are also a favorite for benchrest, NRA High Power and the sport of 1,000-yard F-Class. A popular example is the Savage Model 110 bolt-action rifle.

What is a Lever-Action Rifle?

The Old West lives on with the lever-action rifle. Available in both rimfire and centerfire, levers have the under-barrel magazine tube of the pump-action, with an under-receiver lever. If you’ve ever watched a John Wayne movie, you know exactly how they work. Of course, these guns are mandatory for Cowboy Action competition, but they are also a great choice for hunters, home defense and ranch and farm pest control. A good example is the Winchester Model ’94 lever-action rifle.

Over/Under and Side-By-Side Rifles

Like a single-shot, these are break-action guns as well, but now you get two shells. An over/under has one barrel stacked over a second, while a side-by-side puts the pair on a horizontal plane. Primarily used by African big-game hunters, especially those pursuing Cape buffalo, leopard and other dangerous game for which very large cartridges are required, these actions are really specialty guns, usually with a specialty price tag.


Additional Resources

Modern Sporting Rifle – The modern sporting rifle, based on the AR-15 platform, is widely misunderstood.  The National Shooting Sports Foundation asks you to be an informed gun owner and to use the following facts to correct misconceptions about these rifles.

Minute of Angle – A detailed video and explanation including tips, formulas and examples of “minute of angle” (MOA) and how to use MOA adjustments on your scope for sighting in and to compensate for bullet drop at varying distances.